We have heard once before from that Atlanta newspaper man and down-home song spinner—and one of my personal heroes—Ernest Rogers, when he graced us with his memorable rendition of the old vaudeville song “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper”. Now, he’s with us once again, this time with perhaps even better material (though that old dope head Willie is hard to beat). As I have already biographed Mr. Rogers somewhat thoroughly in the aforementioned article, I urge you to look there for the basic facts.
During his own life, Ernest Rogers was best known as a newsman, rather akin to the South’s answer to Walter Winchell as host and lead reporter of the Atlanta Journal‘s daily “Radio Headlines” program on Atlanta’s pioneering radio station WSB (“Welcome South, brother”). Today however, it is his musical proclivities—namely the five records he made for Victor in 1927 and ’28—that have won him his most enduring fame, yet his activities in the field were far from limited to making records. Rogers copyrighted his first song while still a student at Emory University in 1919. When radio was in its infancy, Rogers joined the staff of Atlanta’s WSB, his crooning and guitar-picking making a hit with listeners at a time when, in Rogers’ own words, “anybody who could sing, whistle, recite, play any kind of instrument, or merely breathe heavily was pushed in front of the WSB microphone.” In 1922, at the same time he was busy making his name on the radio, his composition “Tune in With My Heart”—celebrating the newly emerging medium—was recorded by popular baritone Ernest Hare. Rogers made his own recording debut three years later, waxing a memorable—and probably the first—rendition of the vaudeville folk song “Willie the Weeper” coupled with his own composition “My Red-Haired Lady”. Later in 1925, Francis Craig’s Atlanta-based territory band recorded Rogers’ waltz song “Forgiveness”, featuring the singing of a young James Melton in his first recording, helping to bring the tenor singer to prominence. The year of 1927 began Rogers’ association with Victor Records, which proved to be both his most fruitful record engagement and his last. In his first Victor session on the seventeenth of that February, he began with a duet with WSB announcer and director Lambdin Kay titled “Mr. Rogers and Mr. Kay”—probably in the style of the popular comic song “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”—which was never released. He followed with a remake of “Willie the Weeper”, retitled “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” but nearly identical to his earlier recording. The following May, he traveled to Camden, New Jersey, to make six more sides, starting out with a similar re-do of “My Red-Haired Lady”. “The Flight of Lucky Lindbergh” celebrated the intrepid aviator’s historic journey only two days after he had landed safely in Paris. On “Let Me Be Your Man in the Moon”, Rogers yodeled nearly three whole months before Jimmie Rodgers made his first record. Finally, on February twenty-third of the following year, he completed his recorded legacy in a session that mirrored his first Victor session, making two sides of which only one was issued. Out of a total of twelve recorded sides to his name (including the two unissued), nine were original compositions. Though his recording career had thus ended, Ernest Rogers’ musical interests were far from their conclusion. He continued to publish songs in the decades that followed. Popular hillbilly artist Lew Childre recorded “My Red-Haired Lady” several times during his career [though having not heard the song, I cannot verify that it is indeed the same one]. In his later years, Rogers’ career as a newspaperman had taken precedence over his music-making, but he nevertheless never ceased from entertaining with his homespun ditties when the opportunity presented.
Victor 21361 was recorded in two separate sessions; the first side was recorded on February 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, the second was recorded on May 23, 1927, in Camden, New Jersey. It was released in July of the same year, and remained in Victor’s catalog until 1931.
Providing stiff competition to his “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” for the title of Ernest Rogers’ best remembered song—surely thanks in no small part to its reissue on Tompkins Square’s Turn Me Loose—is his “The Mythological Blues”. Rogers first composed the humorous song during his time at Emory University in 1919—the same year in which he founded the Emory Wheel—but it went unrecorded until his final session nearly ten years afterward. With its lyrics contrasting ancient Greek and Roman mythology with the modern times of the Jazz Age (“of all the sights saw Jupiter spot ’em, seein’ sweet Venus, doin’ Black Bottom; oh take me back ten-thousand years when they played the Mythological Blues”) it makes for a marvelous swan song.
On the flip, Rogers sings “I’ve Got the Misery”, but it sure sounds to me like there’s every known indication that he’s got the blues. This side shines with some of Rogers’ poetry at its most eloquent: “Well, the fire in the stable destroyed the town; but it’s the fire in your eyes that truly burns me down.”